With all the talk about Hugo worthy books and authors I was reminded of Barry Hughart. He blamed the end of his writing career on publishers being idiots and not knowing how to sell his books. I know many people who bring him up as the perfect example of what is wrong with the Hugo process and traditional publishing. I thought I’d look into him and see what I thought.
His first and most well known work was Bridge Of Birds in 1984, he followed with two more by the end of the decade and then he was done. I’ve heard several versions of what happened exactly, some saying he was a victim of bad decisions, some saying he was a victim of his own mouth. I have no idea, I’m not sure anyone really does a quarter century later. After all, the principles have had plenty of time to become firmly convinced of the rightness of their positions.
This being so I decided to reread the books and see for myself how good or bad they were. My wife picked up the kindle bundle The Chronicles Of Master Li And Number Ten OX and away I went. I remember reading Bridge Of Birds when it was new, I wasn’t sure about the others. In fact I’m still not sure.
When I read a book I don’t always remember all of it, but I usually can recognize it as I start rereading it. All I remembered about Bridge of Birds was Number Ten Ox playing Archie/Watson to his master’s Wolfe/Holmes. As I read the book I found that that, and an ancient Chinese setting were all I remembered. I found that more than mildly disturbing. I’m still not sure why more of it didn’t stick.
At any rate, I read the trilogy. I found it fairly well written for the constraints the author was working under. The constraints may be part of why I didn’t remember much. He was trying to do something different. I’m not positive whether he was writing another paean to the mystical east or a send up of same. I even wonder how much was “magic” and how much was description of events using flowery allusion and magic to describe mundane events. Some of the events had to be magical, especially in the latter two books. Other things were referred to as magical when they were science.
There are endless passages describing the exotic locales, people and customs. I personally find that much fluff and filler nauseating, but that is a matter of taste. There is also the matter of mood, and to set something in Ancient China it might be necessary to spend that much time on gods and local celebrations, customs, and color to sell the story. I don’t know.
Another thing I have no idea about is the authenticity of his legends, gods, and court protocol. Research would have been much harder back then, but he could very well be an expert on 6th century China. Equally well he could have made the setting up from popular stories about the wonderful east. I’m not sure and I’m not about to spend the hours of research to find out.
All in all I find myself forgetting the stories as I type this. While that means that I can enjoy reading the books again in a couple of years it also means that the stories are eminently forgettable. In my honest opinion he is not that great a writer. I think many of his fans are like James Dean fans, more about what he might have produced than what he actually did.
Still it comes down to taste. I dislike the adulation many westerners give to anything to do with the mystical east, therefore my enjoyment cannot be the same as one of those who do have the bug. Go read it and tell me what you think about his ability as a writer. You may like him better than I do. You may like him less. This is a good thing, differences in taste make for a lot more variety than agreement does. If everyone liked the same books I do only a handful of very wealthy writers would exist, the other would give up and stay with their day jobs.